I finished my Ph.D in applied mathematics in a US institution last May. I have now started my postdoc position at another US institution last Fall. My post-doc is funded by the department of mathematics here (which means I have a relatively heavy teaching load) with a "formal" assigned mentor/advisor. The initial contract is for one year with the possibility of renewing for additional two years.

However, my "assigned" mentor/advisor has a totally different background from the training I got during my Ph.D and I feel like my assigned mentor/advisor is not "mentoring" at all. To be precise, my assigned mentor/advisor wants to do research and have publications in an area in which I am also very interested, but they literally spend no time on our projects. Instead, they just send me a lot of papers and tell me to read them and do the work myself.

I would prefer to spend time on other projects (some of them are with my Ph.D advisor, which in my mind is a great advisor) instead of "meeting with my assigned mentor/advisor" (as you can not expect my assigned mentor/advisor to guide you anything if you encountered questions/problems about a particular paper). On the other hand, I am afraid of telling my assigned mentor/advisor that we are not a good fit at all and we should stop meeting in the future (as I am afraid that if I do that, then my contract will not be renewed for additional 2 years). How should I approach this?

  • 1
    Can you clarify, are you literally told "you must read these papers" or is that an assumption you are making? Are they just forwarding relevant papers and suggesting you have a look at them? Feb 25, 2023 at 21:33
  • @TerryLoring I am literally told "you must read these papers" (and then "go over the paper with me"), while he/she won't spend a minute on these technical manuscripts. All he/she wants is "progress" and papers/publications, he/she doesn't want to help you nor guide you.
    – Fei Cao
    Feb 25, 2023 at 21:36
  • Is there anybody else at the department who can serve as your mentor? Feb 25, 2023 at 23:08
  • @MoisheKohan There are potential options but as a postdoc I guess finding a person who can technically help you and actually guide you (during the process of transitioning to a relatively new field from my PhD topic) is a bit harder
    – Fei Cao
    Feb 25, 2023 at 23:15
  • Do you think you can find somebody at the department who would be willing to serve as your formal mentor while in fact your actual mentor would be your PhD advisor? Feb 25, 2023 at 23:18

2 Answers 2


If you were hired by an institution rather than a specific person, then I believe you have some leeway in choosing whom you collaborate with. I suggest that on your next meeting with your advisor you discuss your plans and intentions for the postdoc. It sounds like your advisor means well, and just wants to get you interested in their field of research.

For post docs the general expectation is that they work more independently. The objective is to prepare you for a faculty position and see you take the initiative. If you show that you’re moving in that direction then it’s likely to be well received. It’s all about how you present your concerns!

  • Hello, as I mentioned in the OP, my mentor here does not familiar with the (new) field that he/she wants to dive in, that is not good in my mind if you want your "students" to be interested while at the same you couldn't help them (during the process of struggling)
    – Fei Cao
    Feb 25, 2023 at 20:12
  • 1
    I really think the best way forward is to set expectations and a plan in your next meeting.
    – Spark
    Feb 26, 2023 at 1:38

I suggest you talk with the department chair to clarify your research obligations. In cases I am familiar with, when a math department hires a postdoc, that postdoc can work on what they want and with whomever they want, in the department or elsewhere. That might be the case where you are, but the mentor does not realize this.

These days, funding agencies and deans assume postdocs are too immature to seek advice as needed and require a formal mentoring plan. Perhaps you can see this mentoring plan. That might clarify things.

Be sure to find out how your performance evaluations will be done. Who is to write these, and to what standards? Look at your offer letter and your contract. Are you obligated to do research in a particular area, or with a particular person?

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